A Celebration of Conductor and Composer Stephen Wilkinson
John Powell (baritone, That Time of Year)
BBC Northern Singers (Late Afternoon in November)
The William Byrd Singers/Stephen Wilkinson
Recording details not given.
PRIMA FACIE PFCD147 [61:00]
Stephen Wilkinson, an extraordinary musician, was born in 1919 and is still very active. It was only
in 2009 that he laid down his baton as conductor and director of The William Byrd Singers, a choir he had
conducted since its foundation in 1970. Full details of his achievement are included in the liner notes and in a comprehensive Wikipedia entry.
This celebratory disc presents previously issued recordings of choral music by John McCabe, David Ellis and Stephen Wilkinson himself, as well as a very interesting world première release of a recording of Peter Dickinson’s Late Afternoon in November. All the music other than the latter is sung by the William Byrd Singers, and all pieces are conducted by Wilkinson.
Peter Dickinson wrote Late Afternoon in November to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the BBC Northern Singers. It was duly premiered at Keele University on 14 November 1975. Dickinson writes: “I wanted to create a close correspondence between words and music involving scrutiny of the words and even letters of the alphabet in a poem I had written much earlier.” It is very much a work of its time, but rather than present New Complexity, it is characterised by a sense of stasis and calm, with occasional outbursts of conservable brittleness. It presents a good musical picture of an icy, desolate landscape somewhere in Cambridgeshire, I guess.
Several arrangements of folksongs by Stephen Wilkinson come from his 2003 collection Grass Roots. There is one each from Wales, England, Ireland and Scotland. They are well-wrought, subtle and imaginative; they deserve to be performed often.
I am curious why only two of the three parts of John McCabe’s Mangan Triptych – Visions and Siberia – are included There would certainly have been room for the final Motet. The poems by the Irish poet James Clarence Mangan (1803-1849) are dark and lugubrious. According to the liner notes, they are emanations from a very dark psyche; indeed, Irish poet John Montague described Mangan as a haunted man who found a metaphor for the stricken psyche worthy of Baudelaire. Surprisingly, the music is immediately approachable and does not typically present a tortured or angst-ridden sound. That said, the opening Visions ranges from “tenderness to screaming madness”. The Mangan Triptych is an essential part of the English choral repertoire. It is a pity that it is seldom heard.
For some reason, the booklet gives no details or dates for Betjeman’s Bells. The track listing simply states that these are “arrangements” by Wilkinson. Who wrote the original tunes? They sound like novel music to me. This most enjoyable work reflects the patterns of the campanologist’s changes. It is a subtle piece, full of interest. The three “Bell Poems” set are Wantage, Uffington and Bristol. It is the first setting of Betjeman’s verse that I have heard.
My discovery is David Ellis’s Sequentia in Tempore Natali Sancti for choir and soprano soloist, written in 1965. It was premiered at Ilkley in the run-up to Advent Sunday. The composer has set several of the Advent Antiphons which appear in the Roman Missal and are printed in English Hymnal. Ellis has combined these texts with several verses from the carol O My Dear Heart, Young Jesu Sweet. There is a good balance here of rich and spartan choral textures. The final recapitulation of the Carol is perfectly stated.
The final work on this disc is Stephen Wilkinson’s That Time of Year, a setting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. It is written for baritone solo and full choir. This is a lovely musical recreation of the poet’s meditation on old age and love, with the twist that the former makes the latter imperative, before it is gone for good! The slow-moving harmonies generate a melancholy mood but, alas, little optimism. It was premiered in the Royal Northern College of Music on 28 May 1977.
I have no concerns about the wonderful sound reproduction and the deeply sympathetic performances of these outstanding works. The unsigned liner notes give a good introduction to Stephen Wilkinson and the recorded repertoire. (Peter Dickinson wrote the note for his Late Afternoon in November). The texts are included. Certain details are missing, such as some composer dates, and the above-mentioned omission of particulars about Betjeman’s Bells. Of more concern is the lack of recording dates and source details of the original LP/CD releases.
This is a very fine disc of interesting, moving and accomplished choral music. It deserves every success. All these pieces ought and need to be part of the repertoire of choirs up and down the country. I hope that Prima Facie will reissue more recordings made by Stephen Wilkinson and The William Byrd Singers.
Peter DICKINSON (b. 1934)
Late Afternoon in November (1975) [11:35]
As I Walked Out (arr. Stephen Wilkinson) [5:04]
John McCABE (1939-2015)
Visions (1980) [10:13]
Rowing Dwn the Tide (arr. Stephen Wilkinson) [3:23]
Stephen WILKINSON (b. 1919) (arranger)
Betjeman’s Bells [7:01]
The Lark in the Clear Air (arr. Stephen Wilkinson) [4:09]
Siberia (1983) [7:15]
The Piper o’ Dundee (arr. Stephen Wilkinson) [2:02]
David ELLIS (b. 1933)
Sequentia in Tempore Natali Sancti (1965) [6:21]
That Time of Year (1976) [3:54]